Marketers have a crucial role to play in the current Covid-19 crisis by helping organisations respond resiliently, continuing to communicate effectively with employees and customers, and ultimately finding ways to serve society better.
During a recent virtual roundtable organised by Marketing Week and Salesforce, leading marketers discussed how businesses should be reacting during the current health and economic crises while planning for an uncertain future.
In an opening presentation, Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson said businesses must not panic during these difficult times.
He said companies are either in ‘freeze’ mode during the lockdown and unable to do anything; in ‘flex’ mode, where they or some of their brands are actually performing well; or in ‘fix’ mode, trying to find new ways to generate revenue or maximise profits.
“Companies have a chance to repair the business. This is a strategic gift,” he said. “This is the time to look at killing brands or restructuring departments and then revisiting budgets for 2021. This year is over from a strategic point of view.”
Ritson was also adamant brands must continue to communicate and retain an advertising budget to gain and protect their share of voice. “The brands that keep a marketing budget see a payback in market share post-recession.”
When it comes to creative work, he said brands should not move too far from what they were doing before the Covid-19 crisis because data shows those ads are still resonating. He also referred to this topic in a Marketing Week column, where he warned against setting fire to previous campaigns, starting again and producing generic and cliched Covid-themed marketing.
“We do not need more advertising featuring people looking out of windows and on social media, with voices saying how the brand is always with you and your family. All marketing can end up looking the same,” he said.
“In these strange times, brands need to be strategically-focused on the long-term and not just on how people are all at home now. Get fit for the recession by looking at what happened during and after previous downturns.”
Salesforce’s vice-president of strategic innovation, Toby Astor, also presented at the event, arguing brands must take a structured and phased approach because the timing of any economic recovery is so unclear. This means demonstrating a robust in-crisis response, to stabilise the business and mitigate short-term risks; devising a plan for how people return to work; and having an idea of how the organisation will grow, once things begin to return to normal.
He said larger global brands must also prepare for different speeds of recovery across geographies and product sectors.
“What is the right path from old normal to new normal and is your organisation ready?” asked Astor. “Are you thinking about, for example, longer-term customer trends that existed before Covid-19 and will these accelerate or not?” He warned companies not to underappreciate the pace of change pre-Covid-19 or miss the opportunity during the crisis to improve their resilience and market relevance post-pandemic.
“The question is, how do brands maintain marketing budgets to grow higher share of voice? They need to look at brand portfolios and how they drive B2B and B2C relevance and loyalty.” Astor said each company’s ‘response journey’ during the crisis must address four focus areas:
• Can they make decisions and gather information and data more effectively?
• Can they find new ways of working and improve internal comms, to boost productivity and employee engagement?
• Can they engage more effectively with customers by deepening personalisation and improving experiences?
• Could they serve society better and use their business as a platform for positive change?
“One thing [that is] loud and clear is that this is a human crisis and there is an opportunity for stakeholder capitalism and responsible leadership,” Astor said.
The virtual roundtable was conducted under the Chatham House rule, so the senior marketers who took part cannot be identified. However, they all agreed that these are unprecedented times, and organisations and marketing departments must adapt.
One chief marketing officer at a retail bank said the first few weeks of the Covid-19 crisis were spent pulling together a comms plans and trying not to be too general when devising creative work.
“You need to base the decisions you take in a crisis on what your customers are asking you,” he said. “In financial services there is a worry about fraud and people becoming victims. We are marketing a fraud refund guarantee and raising awareness of existing products and services. We are basing our creative on customer insight and laying the groundwork for 2021.”
Another participant from a bank who works primarily in the B2B sector said there needs to be an integrated approach across, brand, media, marketing, public relations and public affairs to ensure a consistent message.
“This is certainly an opportunity to change how we do things from a B2B perspective, which is heavy on events, content production and face to face meetings,” she said.
“We are putting out existing content around cybersecurity and fraud on Twitter and LinkedIn and this is getting high levels of engagement. New content is reminding people how they can bank differently, such as using digital banking. The crisis is also making us more agile as an organisation because we have traditionally operated in silos.”
Doubling down on marketing
A number of larger organisations are having to adapt to how specific product sectors are performing differently.
One EMEA marketing leader for a leading consumer healthcare business said that, across Europe, some products are “flying off the shelves” and requiring hour operations, with new working practices adhering to social distancing. Meanwhile, sales of many non-essential items have stalled.
“Now is not the time to give up on marketing and communication, but to double down and be consistent with messaging,” he said. “The finance team do not always share the view of the marketers, so we need to speak enough sense to allow us to do what we think is the right thing for customers.”
He added that a deflation in TV media pricing across Europe means its brands can still advertise and there is money to invest in the second half of 2020. “We are de-risking rather than cutting our media. We are also working on shorter contracts with our TV partners so we can scale up and down.”
A marketing director for a high-street retailer said that, while store sales are obviously down for most items other than food, the crisis has meant adapting to promoting a more basic range online. “We have gone through the emergency panic phase and are now thinking about how we emerge and thrive in the new normal,” he said.
“What keeps me awake at night is [failing to take] this opportunity to change and transform as much as we should do. For example, how can we accelerate our online growth, and can we reset our value proposition and wean ourselves off a reliance on some promotions?”
Other senior marketers on the call agreed this was a time to keep calm, think long-term and accept that in any crisis there will be winners and losers. The key, one said, is to do something tangible and consider which consumer trends will carry on or change. It is also crucial for senior marketers to have a proper strategy conversation with their board so an advertising budget is maintained.
The challenge for all brands is to ensure that the ideas for change being raised during the coronavirus pandemic are actually implemented. Marketing teams must resist the temptation to fall in to the same old habits once the challenges of the Covid-19 crisis have subsided.